I was an “anchor baby.” According to family lore, the day I was born at Hibbing Memorial Hospital in Minnesota in the early 1960s was also the day my parents received their deportation papers. They had come to America from war-torn Korea on student visas that had run out. Laws at the time prohibited most Asians from immigrating, so they were told to leave, even with three American children.
The 14th Amendment, with its guarantee that anyone born here is an American, protected my siblings and me from being countryless. Today, in the growing clamor over illegal immigration, there have been calls to repeal this amendment, with the pejorative “anchor baby” invoked as a call to arms. The words suggest that having a child in America confers some kind of legal protection on illegal parents, that it gives them a foothold here.
But in reality, merely having a baby on American soil doesn’t change the parents’ status. As a so-called anchor baby, my existence did nothing to resolve my parents’ situation; if anything, it only added to their stress.
In Korea, my father was a talented physician who also happened to speak fluent English. These skills led to his appointment as a medical liaison officer with a MASH unit during the Korean War. The assignment brought him to the attention of some American officers who, after the war ended, arranged for him and my mother to come to the U.S. so my father could continue his education. He ended up training with Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, a pioneer of heart surgery; my father was one of the first anesthesiologists in the world capable of administering anesthesia during open-heart surgery.
Other wartime contacts led to his job as an anesthesiologist in Hibbing, a northern Minnesota town that, because of its isolation and bitter winters, had trouble attracting doctors. My father was the sole anesthesiologist for miles, which meant that he spent long hours at the hospital, where he met with each patient the night before their surgeries and wouldn’t leave until he’d answered all their questions. At home, a phone call during dinner — announcing springtime chain-saw accidents, appendectomies, emergency C-sections — often sent him rushing back to the hospital.
It wasn’t until years later, when he made friends with another anesthesiologist who could cover for him — a German immigrant in Duluth, 70 miles away — that we could finally take a family vacation; until then, my father even had to be careful about drinking a beer at a cookout in case the hospital should call with another emergency.
It was peculiar laws rather than criminal intent that made my parents outlaws at the time of my birth. For most of American history, our country has had an open-door policy on immigration, restricting only people employed in certain kinds of occupations (such as prostitution) and those with communicable diseases. Then, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act out of fear that Chinese immigrants would take American jobs.
In 1924, the Immigration and Naturalization Act established quotas that heavily favored “desirable” Western Europeans while banning immigration from Japan, Korea and other Asian countries. Had my father been from Germany — like his anesthesiologist friend in Duluth, also toiling away at a job American doctors eschewed — citizenship would have happened easily. The same if my father had been from Mexico, as the act placed no quota restrictions on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Instead, my parents went through an awful period of uncertainty, instability and stress, which included being swindled by a number of “immigration lawyers.” In the end, self-interest won out. Not my parents’ self-interest (although they did want to stay in the U.S.) but the interest of a town that needed its anesthesiologist.
Another friend of mine, also Korean American — an academic who has written groundbreaking books and nurtured a generation of scholars — mentioned to me that when her parents died, she opened a special box she’d always thought held secret, glittery treasures, only to find it stuffed with deportation warnings from the INS. Many of my immigrant and second-generation friends share this secret shame festering underneath the foil seals on our college and graduate degrees and our taxpaying lives. Studies show that immigrants, legal and not, are more law-abiding than the rest of the populace, and possibly more patriotic.
As a writer, I receive letters from readers who tell me how my work has touched, even changed, their lives; as a child, I often heard my father’s patients expressing similar sentiments of gratitude. Even the most anti-immigrant citizens have probably been touched by an illegal alien and/or an anchor baby in ways they probably cannot fully fathom.
Our Minnesota town, where people prided themselves on following the law to the letter, did not rush to bring in the INS and run our illegal family out on a rail. People were instead so fearful of losing my father and his skills that the entire town signed a petition to protest the deportation order. This petition was brought to Congress by our local representative and eventually signed into a law to “provide relief” for my mother and father — but only them.
And although they were legal, they still weren’t entitled to become citizens. This satisfied the townspeople, who were happy we were anchor babies —that we anchored my father to this place where his skills were so needed. But my parents, even as “permanent alien residents” with three (later four) American-born children, were still left in legal limbo, inhabiting an America that allowed them to stay, work, pay taxes, but not vote.
As an alien, my father worked at a job that other Americans did not want to do, and others like him have, too, harvesting crops, performing surgery, nurturing children, working in factories, making scientific discoveries, mopping floors.
In 1965, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration act to correct “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.” It meant my parents were no longer “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” They passed their citizenship tests with flying colors and received passports with blue covers and gilt eagles that matched their children’s. My father went on to work at Hibbing Memorial Hospital for three more decades. And finally, we were an American family.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the author of the novel “Somebody’s Daughter.” She teaches at Brown University.